Thanks a melon!

This is the third installment from our new correspondent Jennifer aka Baklava Queen, who lives in northeastern Ohio and blogs regularly at Rolling in the Dough. (Read her first guest post, on canning tomatoes, or her second, on peaches and herbs united.)

On almost every weekend throughout the summer and into fall, you can find some kind of festival in any small town in Ohio where locals and visitors alike turn out to eat (or even dress up as) one particular food. From the Festival of the Fish in Vermilion to the famous Pumpkin Festival in Circleville, we’ve got plenty of reasons to celebrate local food. Love corn? You can find it heralded in Millersport and North Ridgeville. Can’t live without tomatoes? Visit Fredericktown and join the fun. Popcorn, potatoes, honey, maple syrup, grapes, apples – you name it, we Ohioans are probably celebrating it somewhere.

But Labor Day weekend means one thing in particular to those of us raised in proximity to Lake Erie: the Milan Melon Festival. Throughout the year, Milan is famous for being the birthplace of Thomas Alva Edison, but as the summer winds up, the area around Milan bursts into color and fragrance as the bumper crops of watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe are harvested.

As this year marked the 50th year for the festival, I knew I’d better head up for the occasion (as well as the cantaloupe ice cream and watermelon sherbet, both made by a local dairy), and I easily persuaded my father to join me. We ended up re-creating our traditional end-of-summer Sunday drive up toward the lake, in search of melons (for me) and the last of the season’s peaches (for him), and once we turned the car toward home, we both felt satisfied by the success of our mission.

Where melons are concerned, I’m usually of the “eat it now!” school of thought, even though I often can’t finish a whole melon myself without some of it going bad. Recently, though, I came across recipes for preserving and cooking melons, and I thought it might be worth a try this year to see if any of those suggestions would give me a new appreciation for these enormous fruits.

Because melons belong to the same broad family as squashes and cucumbers, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that while melons are sweet, they can also carry off the more savory flavors found in pickling. Earlier in the summer I unearthed my mother’s watermelon pickle recipe, using the rind instead of the flesh, and I used that to reduce the waste from the small watermelon I took home from the farmers’ market. I also found a recipe for cantaloupe chutney, which appealed to my love for Indian food and appreciation for the tangy addition of chutney to those spicy dishes. I had to try it.

As usual, I couldn’t leave the original recipe alone: I added cloves and cardamom pods to the simmering brew, replaced the original currants with my own oven-dried sweet cherries, and used all the flesh from one medium-sized cantaloupe. The chutney turned out fragrant, juicy, and with a powerful sweet/tart/sour punch, and though I’m sure most chutney aficionados would declare that this won’t replace mango chutney in any way, I find it’s a thoroughly acceptable local substitute.

With honeydew, though, I don’t want to preserve it so much as to find other ways to appreciate it. I had a vision of a creamy melon puree of some sort spread over a crust (something akin to lemon bars), but many recipes derived their sole melon flavor from liqueur, and it took me a while to shuffle through recipes to find something I could adapt.

Using my favorite shortbread recipe as a base, I kept the flavors simple, adding only a light sprinkling of candied ginger in the shortbread to highlight the gentle honeydew taste of the custard-like topping. Though I was disappointed that the pale green of the melon’s flesh got lost in the vibrant golden egg color of the custard, the flavor still came through, sweet and vaguely squash-like, well-balanced by the ginger. (In retrospect, the more I taste the tart, the more I think some lime peel would have been the perfect touch, especially after making a honeydew bellini yesterday.)

Neither recipe in any way resembles how I might have enjoyed my summer melon fix in my younger days, of course, and there’s still no substitute for fresh, juicy melon straight from the farm. Once in a while, though, I like to shake up my preconceived notions of taste, and I’m grateful when my “experiments” turn out so well.

And if you have a similar harvest festival going on near you, whether it celebrates melons or corn or pumpkins or garlic or whatever… well, what are you waiting for?

Cantaloupe Chutney

Makes 2 pints

1 c cider vinegar
1 c honey
1 c sugar
4 tsp pomegranate molasses or tamarind paste (optional)
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 lime, seeded and chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 small hot pepper, seeded and minced
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp whole cardamom pods
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 c dried cherries (currants or raisins also work well)
4 to 5 c cantaloupe, cubed

In large nonreactive pot, bring all ingredients except the cantaloupe to a boil. Add the cantaloupe and simmer for 1 hour, until mixture has thickened. Pour into hot, sterilized jars, cover with heated lids and rings, and set aside to seal. (You might also run the jars through a hot water bath for 10-15 minutes to be on the ultra-safe side, but with the vinegar, I doubt you’ll need it unless you want to keep the jars in long-term pantry storage.)

Heavenly Honeydew Custard Tart
Serves 8-12

Shortbread Crust:

1 c flour (I used unbleached but whole wheat pastry should work, too)
1/4 c sugar
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 c mini diced crystallized ginger

Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease a 9” springform or tart pan and set aside.

Whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Cut in butter using a pastry blender. Add ginger and mix to combine. Spread crumbs into prepared pan and press crust into an even layer across the bottom and (if possible) just 1/2" up the sides. Bake for 20 minutes. Set pan on wire rack to cool completely.

Custard Filling:

1/2 c honey
2 T flour
3 eggs, beaten
1.5 c honeydew, pureed
2 T butter
1/2 tsp vanilla

In a medium saucepan, combine honey, flour, eggs, and honeydew puree. Cook over medium heat about 10 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture boils and thickens. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla. Cool.

When custard has thickened, spread over shortbread filling. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight to allow the filling to set. Cut into wedges and serve garnished with fresh mint or real whipped cream.

4 Responsesto “Thanks a melon!”

  1. What about melon seeds? Are they edible and tasty? Whenever I prepare a melon I wince at composting the seeds, thinking about the nutritional value I’m tossing out.

  2. I hadn’t really thought about it before, Marc, but my guess is that, like squash seeds, they should be edible. A quick and dirty Google search reveals hints that that would be so… as well as the oil potential in the seeds… but nothing definite. I think I may have to look into this further!

  3. Riana says:

    Marc and Jennifer- I think that they are. In spain they make horchata out of melon seeds, called chufa. They dry them, then grind the seeds super fine, soak in water over night, add sugar and spices and you have chufa water.

  4. Sounds intriguing, Riana! Do they use seeds from a specific kind of melon?